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Tainted vape pens selling 2-for-1 in illegal California stores

October 23, 2019
Dank Vapes, an illegal underground brand with no company behind it, remains one of the main health hazards connected to VAPI. (Northwest Metro Drug Task Force/Minnesota Departments of Public Safety via AP)
Dank Vapes, an illegal underground brand with no company behind it, remains one of the main health hazards connected to VAPI. Leafly found them for sale unlicensed stores in L.A. (Northwest Metro Drug Task Force/Minnesota Departments of Public Safety via AP)

Tests run on cannabis vaporizer cartridges recently obtained by Leafly at illegal California stores show shocking levels of pesticide contamination and toxic vitamin E oil.

By law, those shops shouldn’t even exist, let alone sell tainted THC vape oil to an unsuspecting public. Under Proposition 64, which took effect Jan. 1, 2018, all medical and adult-use cannabis retailers must have a state-issued license.

A Dank Vapes Sour Apple cartridge tested at 5,475 times the legal limit for chlorfenapyr, a mosquito pesticide.
Leafly, via Anresco Labs

Despite those regulations, thousands of unlicensed cannabis shops still operate throughout the state. Because they’re not following the rules, the products they sell are not subject to stringent potency and purity testing requirements.

Illicit vendors remain especially abundant in Los Angeles. More than 22 months into legalization, officials have shut down only a small portion of LA’s many unlawful cannabis shops.

Meanwhile, an unprecedented, national mass poisoning event has sickened nearly 1,400 and killed at least 33 from vaping-associated pulmonary injury (VAPI). And evidence amassed by the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other sources have identified street THC carts as the key vector in the nationwide VAPI outbreak. So Leafly went shopping in the street markets for so-called ‘fart carts’.

In Los Angeles, we found no shortage of untested and potentially counterfeit cannabis vape supplies for sale in unlicensed cannabis stores operating openly. We obtained 10 disposable cartridges and had their contents tested by a licensed lab.

Result: Some oils had pesticide levels more than 5,000 times the legal limit. Others contained nearly 35 percent tocopheryl-acetate, the vitamin E oil additive that, when heated and inhaled, prevents lungs from absorbing oxygen. Tocopheryl-acetate is one of the leading suspects in the national VAPI crisis.

One unlicensed cannabis store in Los Angeles priced potentially toxic Dank Vapes vape cartridges (“Danks”) two-for-one. Some of the displayed products look like legal brands, but they’re suspected counterfeits. It’s not legal for state-licensed brands to wholesale to unlicensed stores. (Photo by Marissa Wenzke for Leafly)

California’s illicit vape pen problem

At last count, 110 of the nation’s sickened VAPI patients reside in California. Three have died. Leafly has confirmed that the first brand associated with a California patient who died from VAPI is called “West Coast Cure.” The brand is still widely available in-state from unlicensed delivery services.

California remains the #1 domestic source for cannabis in the US. Since the 1980s, the Golden State has led the nation in production and export of raw cannabis. Nowadays, police say the west coast continues to also lead the nation as a source state for illicit vape pen components: THC oil, electronics hardware, and chemical additives.

Recent Leafly investigations found a number of wholesale merchants selling counterfeit vape cartridge packaging and toxic additives in the downtown Los Angeles wholesale district. Officials suspect that at least one licensed vape cartridge producer, Kushy Punch, sold untested products into the street market.

Earlier this year the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 97, which added a new $30,000-per-day fine that state regulators could impose against the landlords of unauthorized cannabis stores. Despite the ever-increasing number of illicit vape pen injuries, officials have so far not used that $30,000-a-day tool to shut down any unlicensed cannabis business.

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Licensed dispensaries outnumbered by illegal establishments

It’s not hard to find a bootleg cannabis store in LA—mainly because it’s difficult to find a legitimate one.

City officials have so far licensed just 189 outlets for a city of four million people. By comparison, the city of Portland, Oregon, which has only 15% of the population of Los Angeles, has licensed more than 150 adult-use dispensaries.

In LA, we visited places calling themselves medical dispensaries, like “Dankalicious 15 Cap” at 5021 San Vicente Blvd and “Melrose Place 25 Cap” at 5635 Melrose Ave. There we found two-for-one deals on Dank Vapes, the notorious street brand linked to dozens of VAPI victims nationwide.

Half the price of the real thing

Suspected counterfeit versions of licensed vape brands Cookies, STIIZY, and Brass Knuckles sold for $35-$40 for a full-gram cartridge, about half what the real, legal versions cost. (Bootleg vape cartridge factories often use counterfeit packaging that copies legitimate products and fools consumers.) The carts averaged $22 each. Other underground brand names like Exotic Carts and Cereal Carts sold for dirt-cheap prices, $15-$20 for a full gram of THC oil. By contrast, licensed, tested full grams of THC oil typically cost $40-$60.

Tocopheryl-acetate cuts of 35%

We had Anresco Laboratories, a licensed San Francisco-based lab, test the first five carts for the dangerous vape additive tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E oil), and test the remaining five units for a wide range of pesticides. We didn’t test all 10 products for every possible contaminant because each lab test requires a substantial amount of oil to sample. Due to the limited supplies of samples, Leafly and Anresco prioritized testing for the most harmful popular contaminants.

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Amid vape pen lung disease deaths: What exactly is vitamin E oil?

As expected, tocopheryl-acetate turned up in most samples of oil from the street. Commonly dubbed vitamin E oil, chemists and toxicologists tell Leafly that when smoked and inhaled, the otherwise benign food supplement and cosmetics ingredient blocks the lungs’ ability to absorb oxygen, triggering chemical pneumonitis, hypoxia, and, if untreated, death.

Tocopheryl-acetate use exploded in street-market vape cartridges in 2019. Without any state-mandated test results to verify a vape cartridge’s quality, consumers in the nation’s illicit markets often use oil thickness as a proxy for purity. (Fact check: It’s not.) Street vape cartridge makers capitalized on that false assumption by adding tocopheryl-acetate, which dilutes the THC oil without thinning its viscosity.

Anresco Labs found tocopheryl-acetate levels as high as 34.9% in an Exotic Carts variety called Mars OG, meaning that more than one-third of the entire cartridge consisted of a suspected lung toxin. The suspected counterfeit Brass Knuckles cartridge tested at 33% tocopheryl-acetate.

(Leafly illustration; data via Anresco Labs)

5,475 times over the legal limit for mosquito pesticide

Also troubling: All five illicit vape cartridges we tested exceeded California’s maximum allowable level of pesticide residue, which go straight into a users’ lungs when vaped and can also cause lung injury.

'It’s kind of scary how many pesticides we found in these samples.'
Josh Richard, Anresco Labs

A Dank Vapes Sour Apple cartridge tested at 5,475 times the legal limit for chlorfenapyr, a mosquito pesticide. The same cartridge had 547 times the allowable limit of bifenazate (a chemical used to kill mites), and 362 times the limit for myclobutanil, a fungicide that can transform into hydrogen cyanide when heated.

Neurotoxins and cancerous chemicals

Josh Richard, director of cannabis services at Anresco Labs, explained the potential harm.

“Myclobutinal and other pesticides have been known to be considered neurotoxins as they’re combusted,” he said. “When you combust the pesticide, it converts it to other cancerous chemicals.”

A Cereal Carts vape cartridge advertised as the flavor Blueberry Pancake Crunch tested 1,780 times over the state limit for myclobutanil.

“There were a lot more pesticides, both in the amount of pesticide we found, and the number of pesticides in each sample,” Richard said. “It’s kind of scary how many pesticides we found in these samples.”

The tests match a similar October assay performed by the lab Cannasafe, which found that legal, state-licensed vape cartridges tested clean, while street THC oil failed for both tocopheryl-acetate and pesticides.

tainted vape pens california leafly graphic test results

(Leafly illustration; data via Anresco Labs)

The illicit market still thriving

Californians buy tainted illicit vape cartridges from friends and acquaintances, pop-up markets, bootleg delivery services, and scofflaw storefronts like the ones we visited. The state’s decades-old underground industry is three to five times bigger than the newly legal one, according to recent estimates.

Rumors continue to swirl in the industry about a number of old-school medical operators who continue to produce untested products for illegal shops.

Earlier this month Leafly broke the news that Kushy Punch, a licensed California cannabis brand, is under investigation by officials on suspicion of moving clean, tested vape carts out the front door while simultaneously shipping dirty oil and gummies out the back. Kushy Punch’s lawyer admitted to possession of an unpermitted warehouse and $21 million in unlicensed KushyVapes and gummies, but denied recently manufacturing or distributing the contraband.

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Tulare County victim used West Coast Cure

California’s VAPI victims first drew the attention of public health officials months ago in rural Kings County, where tested cannabis is banned. All victims in the state are thought to have used THC vape cartridges purchased from street markets or unlicensed storefronts, according to the California Department of Public Health.

One victim in California’s rural Tulare County died in mid-September. Adult-use cannabis stores are banned in Tulare County, which leaves many residents reliant on the unregulated, untested street market.

Using Facebook, Leafly contacted an associate of the Tulare County victim who confirmed the victim used a cartridge from a black-and-gold package branded “West Coast Cure” and labeled with the strain name “Lucky Charms.” Previous media reports had not identified the brand name. (Leafly is not publishing the source’s name, because they are not authorized by the victim’s family to speak to the media.) West Coast Cure did not return calls from Leafly.

Promotional image of West Coast Cure Lucky Charms THC vape cart associated with Tulare County death.

Online promo image of West Coast Cure Lucky Charms, the THC vape cartridge brand associated with the death of one Tulare County VAPI patient.

West Coast Cure is a Sacramento-based medical marijuana-era brand in the process of trying to transition to the adult-use market. During that process, they seem to have made THC vape pens without a license and sold them to unlicensed delivery services which serve Tulare County. West Coast Cure advertised products for sale this past summer on Weedmaps, according to online caches of their site. West Coast Cure announced the discontinuation of street sales, according to text messages to unlicensed stores this year. “We will no longer be able to provide product to any collective. … we plan on working with you guys until we are sold out.”

West Coast Cure product listings have since disappeared from Weedmaps.

In 2019, West Coast Cure did obtain a distribution license, which allows them to legally transport cannabis from a farm or a lab to a store. But distributors are not allowed to perform chemical extractions or fill vaping devices, which requires a manufacturing license.

California crackdown slow in coming

Since late August, when the VAPI outbreak became widely known, multiple tests have found potentially life-threatening ingredients in California’s street supply of illicit THC vape cartridges. The location of bootleg retailers is available at the tap of a smartphone app. Even so, civil and criminal prosecutions have proven slow in coming.

Civil abatement programs have already eradicated acres of unpermitted cultivation in Humboldt and Sonoma County. Despite the ongoing public health crisis, state officials have not fined a single landlord $30,000 for renting to an illegal store.

It's easy to find illegal stores on some high-profile cannabis apps. Operating without a license calls for a fine of $30,000 per day. Yet the City of Los Angeles has yet to dock a single illegal store that $30,000.

“We have not issued fines yet,” said California Bureau of Cannabis Control spokesperson Alex Traverso.

In Los Angeles, Jerred Kiloh described a frustratingly “slow rollout” of civil fine enforcement by the state. Kiloh is the president of the United Cannabis Business Association, a leading legal cannabis retailer’s trade group.

“Right now, it seems like a calm or quiet time for enforcement,” said Kiloh. “They’re waiting to make sure all of the mechanisms are in place so that when they do collect a fine, there’s a clear pathway to prove there has been illegal behavior and to get a court to give them a judgment to recover these fines.”

City of LA: ‘We’re taking action’

We contacted members of the Los Angeles City Council who represent districts with a lot of illegal cannabis vendors. They referred us to an ad hoc enforcement task force announced in May.

A spokesperson for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti confirmed that a coalition of city agencies are working with the LA Police Department to root out bad actors in the cannabis space, and claim to have reduced the estimated number of illegal outlets by 44% in the past five months. “Unlicensed cannabis businesses operate outside of the safe, legal, and equitable rules that have been established to regulate the industry,” the Garcetti spokesperson told Leafly by email. “We’re taking action to protect Angelenos’ health and safety.”

City authorities have, in fact, taken some actions. In August, the task force cut power to 194 unpermitted marijuana retailers and promised to send threatening letters to their landlords. In response, some shops shut down but others reportedly brought in gasoline or diesel generators.

VAPI suspect ‘Dank Vapes’ is still listed

Meanwhile, the controversy over the listing of illegal vape cartridges and the stores that sell them continues.

A leading online cannabis advertising site for illicit THC vapes, Weedmaps, listed now-notorious street brand Dank Vapes for sale as of Oct. 22.

Health officials have made Dank Vapes the most notorious health hazard in the national street market. Yet it's still listed for sale.

Weedmaps officials have said the company will require all listings to include a state license number by the end of 2019. That policy allows illegal, unlicensed stores to remain listed for two more months.

Kiloh has seen those listings drop dramatically in recent weeks, “which shows that they’re trying to comply,” he said.

Earlier this week Weedmaps announced a layoff of one-quarter of the company’s staff. A Leafly source said the cuts trim costs in anticipation of a dramatic revenue downturn once unlicensed brand and store listings disappear from the site. Weedmaps officials dispute that characterization.

When reached by Leafly, a Weedmaps official responded to our question about the listing of West Coast Cure products earlier this year by saying anyone can list a store stocked with whatever products they like, due to Weedmaps’ self-publishing business model. Similar to Twitter, Weedmaps now includes a blue check mark on “verified” listings.

Weedmaps CEO: ‘Deeply concerned’

In an email, Weedmaps CEO Chris Beals described his company as “a self-publishing platform where thousands of brands and retailers publish information on their brands. We are deeply concerned about the health issues surrounding vaping, and counterfeit products are a serious problem in the cannabis industry.”

“We identified this issue early, and in 2017 we launched our Weedmaps Brand & Verified Retailer program, which allows brands to verify stores and products to help consumers identify genuine products,” Beals wrote. “Stores can flag their individual products for verification approval by the applicable brand. This makes us a critically important tool for defending against counterfeit cannabis products.”

Many industry leaders remain furious that Weedmaps continues to facilitate street sales, long after the California Bureau of Cannabis Control sent the company a cease-and-desist letter in February 2018.

“We thought the transition period was a little longer than necessary for a technology company to remove 2,000 postings from their website,” Kiloh said. “They were told a year and a half ago that they should comply.”

“Maybe an extra three months wouldn’t kill anyone,” Kiloh added. “The problem is, it might.”

How to make sure your cannabis store is licensed

Nearly all tainted vape cartridges have originated outside of California’s licensed cannabis system. Consumers who want to make sure they’re purchasing from a legal store have a number of options.

Los Angeles residents can check to see if their favorite store is licensed on the city’s Department of Cannabis Regulation website, which contains both a map of authorized businesses and an alphabetical list. The city accepts reports about illegal shops—as well as complaints about legal ones—at a complaint portal on the web. Check licensees statewide at the Bureau of Cannabis Control.

At the state level, the BCC does carry out enforcement actions on activity they get complaints about. They acted earlier this month, for instance, after receiving a complaint about an alleged unlicensed factory making Kushy Punch vapes and gummies, a Fresno vape shop caught selling Dank Vapes, and two bootleg LA stores.

The state Bureau of Cannabis Control asks citizens to report unauthorized activity in an online form. Those citizen reports really matter.

“As we receive complaints, we follow up on them as expeditiously as we can,” Traverso explained. “In light of these vaping illnesses, if we receive tips that indicate illegal manufacturing of products, or retail locations selling illegal vape cartridges, those complaints become our priority as there is a major public health and safety concern.”

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Joe Kukura, Marissa Wenzke, and David Downs's Bio Image

Joe Kukura, Marissa Wenzke, and David Downs

Joe Kukura is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist who has covered cannabis for SF Weekly since 2015. His work has appeared in Thrillist and the Daily Dot.

Marissa Wenzke covers cannabis in Los Angeles for Leafly. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and works as a digital news producer for KTLA newscasts.

David Downs directs news and lifestyle coverage as the California Bureau Chief for Leafly.com. He's written for WIRED, Rolling Stone and Billboard, and is the former cannabis editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as the author of several cannabis books including 'Marijuana Harvest' by Ed Rosenthal and David Downs. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. TW: @davidrdowns | IG @daviddowns

View Joe Kukura, Marissa Wenzke, and David Downs's articles